Governing from the center is a good way to accomplish nothing much

December 16, 1996|By Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- At first blush, President Clinton's announced intention to govern from the ''vital and dynamic center'' sounds reasonable. If there was any clear message sent by the electorate last month, it was that Americans are tired of extremism and partisanship.

Moreover, by talking about governing from the center, Mr. Clinton appears to be taking the high ground in confronting the Republicans who will run Congress. If there is going to be a partisan brawl, he seems to be saying, don't blame me.

More closely examined, however, the notion of the ''vital and dynamic center'' is really no more than rhetoric describing a program of pursuing at a moderate pace limited initiatives that don't raise any hackles or evoke any backlash. Someone governing from the center would not shut down the federal government, for example, if he didn't get his way on the budget.

The president is really saying that he doesn't intend to take risks with aggressive proposals or spend his political capital by attacking national concerns in a radical way. He is going to punt on fourth and one.

The great initiatives that presidents and political parties have taken in the past have not come out of the center, vital or otherwise. The Democratic Party reached its greatest position of strength by being the agent of such changes as the creation of the Social Security system and the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It was the radicals, not the center, who finally forced an end to the war in Vietnam.

Where we all can agree

By contrast, Mr. Clinton is talking about promulgating incremental changes that can rally an easy majority. Who is not in favor of more police on the streets? Or fewer kids smoking? Or better schools with higher standards? Or fewer welfare beneficiaries?

It may be true, of course, that there is a lack of ''great issues'' facing the country that require strong leadership and the willingness to spend political capital. In fact, there are several chronic national problems that may not be easily solved but demand attention nonetheless.

Just four years ago the new president was telling us that the highest priority had to be given to reforming the health-care system. There were, we were told, 37 million Americans without insurance coverage, and the costs of medical care had reached such staggering levels that many Americans simply couldn't afford to fall ill. Beyond that, we were told, until the health-care system was reformed, there was little real hope of achieving and maintaining a balanced budget without huge tax increases.

The attempt to confront this problem collapsed in the summer of 1994 and crystallized a reaction against the liberalism of Bill Clinton and congressional Democrats.

Thus today we hear little or nothing about those 37 million people who still can't buy health insurance they can afford. Nor is the president insisting that until those health costs -- 14 percent of the economy, we recall -- have been controlled, there is no realistic way to solve the budget dilemma. The crisis of 1993 is a taboo topic today.

Nor is health care the only national concern being given more lip service than aggressive treatment. We still have an apparently permanent underclass of 8 or 10 or 12 percent of our citizens who live in poverty with neither economic opportunity nor the skills to take advantage of such an opportunity when it appears. The conventional wisdom holds that the ''war on poverty'' conducted by Lyndon B. Johnson failed and may even have caused a backlash by raising expectations that could not be fulfilled. But is that any reason to fail to attack poverty again, in some new and better way? Apparently.

We have all learned over the last few decades that you cannot solve problems ''by throwing money at them.'' And we have learned that Grand Plans often produce less than grand results. But there are inequities in American life that demand attention -- and perhaps less political caution in the White House.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 12/16/96

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